Voiceover

Voiceover-related links, in no particular order. Intended for the voiceover amateur aspiring to be a professional. (For my fanboy-ish entries, see the main blog under the "Home" tab and search for "voiceover".)

  • Sirenetta Leoni's "Inside Voiceover" blog
  • Recording Hacks' 2009 USB audio interface shootout and review
  • Recording Hacks' 2012 audio interface shootout
  • "A Great Voice", a short subject about legendary voiceover artist Hal Douglas. Doublas passed away on 7 March 2014 at the age of 89; the New York Times has his obituary.
  • Speaking of Hal Douglas, the "5 Guys in a Limo" short is priceless. Note that Douglas does not appear: only his voice is heard in a brief phone call (which LaFontaine ignores). Douglas lived on the East Coast, so this might have been a good-natured dig. (There's a Wikipedia entry for this short.)
  • An Audacity tutorial video by Rich Johnstun. An admittedly very brief search for such tutorials turned up a couple of shorter presentations, but they were pretty bad: too brief to be useful to novices and too trivial for those who have a little experience. (I fall into the latter category, so I know whereof I write.) Rich's presentation is nearly 45 minutes long, but it's logically presented and doesn't drag. It would have benefited from being broken up into two or three chapters, or having bookmarks allowing one to jump to key points, but it's a free presentation so it seems ungrateful to nitpick.
  • VGScripts.com "is a community effort to bring great video game scriptwriting to the masses so everyone can enjoy the writing and stories of video games."
  • I had been looking for a way to display plain-text scripts on my phone so I could avoid having to print pages to read in my home booth. Turns out that if you own a reasonably modern iOS device, i.e., an iPhone or iPad, you already have all the tools you need. The precise details are included in this Apple help page (see especially "Import a document from your computer") but suffice to say that the process uses Pages to display plain-text files on the iOS device. To get them onto the iOS device you have to hook it up to your computer, then in iTunes select the device and look for the "File Sharing" heading. Then click "Add..." to select the file(s) you want loaded onto the iOS device from your computer.
  • To import PDFs onto your iOS device, use iBooks (unless you have a significantly older version of iOS, in which case you'll have to use iTunes). One day, if I have time and I remember, I'll add the details here.
  • Dee Bradley Baker is a successful animation voiceover pro who maintains the Web site I Want to be a Voice Actor. There's a lot of wisdom here, especially for the raw beginner. (A lot of VO pros have a lot of wisdom to share, I should note. It happens that I'm fascinated by Baker's vocalization for "Perry the Platypus" in Phineas and Ferb, since I haven't been able to figure out how he produces that sound. It seems he excels at making "special vocalizations", according to his main Web site.)

Notes/observations:

  • About British accents: as an American, emulating British accents is, at one and the same time, easy and difficult. The easy part is finding authentic sources, thanks to the numerous movies and TV shows Britain has exported. The difficult part is getting beyond what one might call a catch-all caricature of the stereotypical (and, in common English life, increasingly rare) "posh" accent. Robbie Coltrane's accent as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, for instance, is a rustic accent (a native speaker would no doubt be able to particularize the region) not found in London. And trying to imitate the director's commentary for The King's Speech I found myself stumbling over the commonplace word "about" because Tom Hooper's pronunciation seems to fall midway between a broadly Australian "abaht" and the more "rounded" pronunciation of BBC standard. Hooper's commentary also revealed the subtle differences between the the pronunciations of "Paris" ("pahr-iss", with the second syllable clipped), "particular" ("puh-ticulah", with the first syllable clipped), and "awareness" ("a-weh-ness", with the final syllable clipped), to name but a few examples in a couple of sentences.
  • I really wanted to like Justice League: The New Frontier, an animated feature based on a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke. But this movie falls flat. At no time do you forget, "There are human beings reading these lines in a studio." My expectations would have been lower for a movie solely aimed at kids, but this clearly hoped to attract a young-adult audience as well.

    David Boreanaz is perhaps the worst of the star-studded lot as Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), but fairness demands that he not be singled out because Neil Patrick Harris as Barry Allen (the Flash), John Heard as Ace Morgan and Joe Mantegna in a brief cameo as a lounge singer give Boreanaz a run for his money. (Mantegna essentially reprises his Simpsons mobster but it's embarrassingly wrong in this context.) Kyle MacLachlan does much better as Superman, but he's saddled with terribly clunky dialogue in a crucial scene when the script needs to be inspirational. Lucy Lawless (Wonder Woman), Kyra Sedgwick (Lois Lane), and Brooke Shields (Carol Ferris) do the best they can with the material, but like MacLachlan, at various times they're undermined by the script. Of the cast members best known for onscreen work, only Miguel Ferrer as J'onn J'onnz (the Martian Manhunter) and Jeremy Sisto as Batman emerge unscathed.

    It pains me to say that I disliked the work of one of the voiceover pros just as much as Harris', Heard's or Mantegna's. Phil Morris' King Faraday is a noble character but he always sounds fake: I never believed Faraday was alive. The voiceover pros as a group, though, fared much better than their more famous costars; Corey Burton's Abin Sur particularly stood out for its absolutely convincing nuance.

    How much of my unhappiness is due to the performers, and how much is the fault of the script? I'm not sophisticated enough to know for sure. Unquestionably some of the dialogue falls into the category of "you can type this shit, but you can't say it!" However, the biggest problem may be that Boreanaz and Harris were miscast in their central roles. Boreanaz played the heroic Angel, but Angel wasn't an old-fashioned, square-jawed comic book hero. Harris has showed subtlety on How I Met Your Mother but none of that is evident in his Flash: perhaps the subtlety depends too much on his physical presence to translate well to voiceover.

  • One of the things a good voiceover performer has to be able to do is to deliver a usable performance in the very first take. (This was not obvious to me, nor, I suspect, was it obvious to you until now.) This is important for virtually any performing art. That was borne home to me when I watched the screen tests for Juno, included as extras on the DVD. All of the main cast absolutely nails the tone of the dialogue in every scene. It's impressive as all get out.
  • File this under "whoda thunk?": the curiously attention-getting "second" voice associated with the superb documentary series How the Universe Works is Erik Dellums, whom I first got to know as the supremely Machiavellian Luther Mahoney on Homicide: Life on the Street.

    I am a huge fan of Mike Rowe's narration on How the Universe Works: it's quietly warm and charming, and when the script calls for it, witty and dryly humorous. Dellums brings something different to the table. He's as understated as Rowe (definitely a requirement for this series, which deals in big, big ideas that must be grounded in a comforting narrator), but there's something ominous in his tone. It's not evil, though one familiar with the Mahoney character might be tempted to hear that in Dellums' performance. I simply got the sense that Dellums' narrator is speaking into my ear from over my shoulder in the manner of a spirit guide, warning me of the dangers on my path. Perhaps it was unavoidable given the topic of the episode I watched, "Megaflares".

  • It's not easy to voice a long script. I'm not talking about voicing it as a character, using a different voice. I'm talking about just reading it aloud in your own voice, bringing out its meaning and not stumbling.

    If you find yourself stumbling too often (how you define "too often" is up to you, at least when you're starting out), make time to do two things:

    • Read
    • Read out loud
    By "read", I mean you should seek out well-written material and read it, silently. Your eyes need to be accustomed to the visual ebb and flow of sentences. Where's the primary verb? What's the subject? Where does the sentence end? Where are the commas? Is there a list coming up? These are just a few of the things to be watching out for, because these affect the arc of the thought: what you perceive as the beginning, middle and end of the sentence. Having a feel for the arc of the thought affects how you voice the sentence: where you raise and lower your voice, where you breathe, where (or if) you'll land, etc. Reading without vocalizing will allow you to concentrate on the meaning of what you're reading and will give you a better feel for how sentences you haven't read in full will likely play out.

    "Read out loud" is a straightforward enough piece of advice. Here, too, make sure to choose well-written material. Also, don't try to do more than reading in your own voice at first: if you're having trouble making it through a paragraph without stumbling, don't practice a celebrity impression or an accent at the same time. And getting through a passage without stumbling is, of course, only a first step: you have to deliver it convincingly, too.

    Note that I told you to find well-written material. This does not include most of what is freely available online: seek out material that has been well-edited and proofread. (Reading badly-written copy requires that you make some sense of it, which you can only do if you know what well-written English looks like.) Your safest bet is to seek out books, especially older ones: standards for editing were higher before the Web. Don't look to even the best periodicals as reliably well-written sources: deadlines make errors more likely. I find nonfiction to be a safer bet than fiction: too often fiction trades in ungrammatical English for effect.

    Finally, how should you go about doing this? I suggest carving out time every day. For silent reading, do it anytime you can, like during lunch or before bed. Most of us don't need to spend a lot of time silently reading because we've done it for most of our lives: we just need to be more attentive to the structure of what we're reading, thinking of it as we think of our scripts, with an eye to how it would sound if read out loud.

    Reading out loud, however, is a task to which you should dedicate a set amount of time. Once you can read aloud comfortably for that time, increase it starting the next day; I suggest increments of five minutes. If you're just starting out, see if you can read aloud for ten minutes.

    There's no upper limit on how long you should read aloud, though most of us probably don't have the luxury of setting aside more than a half-hour. Anyway, how long you spend is less important than simply getting better, and you will get better. You'll become more relaxed and confident in your reading as you become more comfortable with the subtleties of the language. As with any exercise, your muscles will become more efficient. Also like any exercise, your results will depend on your potential and your dedication. Don't make the mistake of comparing your progress to anyone but yourself.

  • Imitation isn't a huge part of the voiceover business, near as I can tell. It's a part, to be sure, but not a big part. Still, I'm generally impressed when somebody can do a good imitation. It was a pleasant surprise to find that Jimmy Fallon does a good Robin Williams. It was brief and it came in an unfortunate context — a tribute to Williams in the wake of his death — but its accuracy made me sit up and take notice.
  • I wrote a brief post on mental clutter and creativity. It has obvious relevance for voiceover talents and their state of mind at the mic.